For a century after the incredibly influential writings of Carl von Clausewitz in the early years of the 19th-century, the study of war, specifically the study of battles, occupied a regal prominence in the field of history-writing.
It was taken as a given that the study of battles was illustrative, even vaguely ennobling, and monumental, multi-volume battle-histories appeared at regular intervals, often running to many reprints and achieving a classic status in the sub-genre.
Only a couple of decades after Clausewitz’s death, for instance, in 1851 Sir Edward Creasey published his Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World and had a bestselling hit on his hands.
In 1920 Hans Delbrück wrote his History of the Art of War in four volumes, which was very quickly translated into dozens of languages and firmly lodged on the extended reading lists of dozens of military academies. Even as late as 1940, JFC Fuller could publish his Decisive Battles of the Western World and Their Influence upon History, fully confident that such influence wasn’t debatable.
But as Boston University history professor Cathal Nolan notes at the beginning of his brilliant new book The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost, that kind of thinking underwent a decline in its prestige in the modern era.
He doesn’t speculate as to reasons, but he notes the widened contemporary disconnect between subject and reception that’s taken hold at the academic levels of history-writing in the decades since, for instance, the Vietnam War.
Nowadays, the fascination of the subject is almost nervously disowned; “recent academic hostility to traditional military history has gone too far,” he insists. “We admire oiled images of oafish, mounted generals in silk and lace who led armies to slaughter in endless wars over where to mark off a king’s stone border,” he sharply observes. “Perhaps most of all, we watch films with reassuring characters and outcomes which glorify war even while supposedly denouncing it.”
Nolan’s big book is, among other things, a powerful recension of those old decisive-battles tomes from earlier, more morally certain times. The allure of battle, he maintains, would matter little if it weren’t for the fact that battles have altered the course of world events in “conflicts of prolonged destruction and suffering”, and in Nolan’s telling, battle can mirror and distort the social forces that bring them about in the first place.
Beginning with the campaigns of the lionised Duke of Marlborough (the book concentrates exclusively on the age of gunpowder) and moving forward through the campaigns of Frederick the Great, Bismarck, and Napoleon Bonaparte, Nolan consistently concentrates on the broader meaning of war, the multi-faceted nature of this weird and disastrous activity, the most expensive, complex, physically, emotionally and morally demanding enterprise that humans collectively undertake.
“No great art or music, no cathedral or temple or mosque,” Nolan writes, “no intercontinental transport net or particle collider or space programme, no research for a cure for a mass killing disease receives even a fraction of the resources and effort humanity devotes to making war.”
The book’s narrative structure is surprisingly traditional in its main outlines. Nolan follows the currents of post-classical warfare from the wars of religion to “the wars of kings and empires”, pausing at all the predictable spots and spending time with all the usual suspects. Napoleon Bonaparte, described several times as the greatest of the “horse-and-musket generals” (“he was also the last, which is more important”), is the subject of some of the book’s most incisive writing, as is perhaps only natural, considering how thoroughly Bonaparte has been identified with battle from his own time down to the present.
More recent favourable assessments of the man, like Andrew Roberts’s Napoleon the Great, hold no brief in Nolan’s version: “His policy was always and forever war, broken by temporary truces which he tore up whenever he chose or needed to, without regard for damage to his and France’s ability to make peace, to appease or submit or even ally with him.” (“Always, he bullied,” we’re told. “Often, he invaded.”)
One of Nolan’s themes throughout is that the mismatch between the romantic idealisation of battle and the increased mechanisation of warfare has worked to heighten the dehumanising nature of war itself.
General Dwight D Eisenhower’s famous caustic allusion to the brutality and the stupidity of war comes to mind as Nolan describes the various typologies: Battle Decisive, Battle Defeated, Battle Exalted, Battle of Annihilation. We read of soldiers cutting off their own thumbs to make it impossible to fire a musket, thereby hoping to guarantee their dismissal.
Nolan relates the horrors of the doomed Japanese invasion of southern China in 1944: “Rage and frustration swelled into a scorched-earth ferocity and the renewal of what Chinese called Sanguang Zhenge and Japanese later dubbed the Sanko Sakusa, or Three Alls order, first issued in 1940: ‘Burn All. Loot All. Kill All.’” (Rage was not victory, Nolan reminds us). And on the subject of the Second World War, when Nolan comes to the American strategy of fire-bombing Japanese cities during the Pacific campaign, he’s open about the merciless tactics of the Allies.
“They learned how to make firestorms to consume Imperial Japan’s cities, housing stock, hospitals and railway tracks, factories and workers, above all its will to resist. Bombers would roast Japanese morale until it crackled and broke,” he writes. “The Allies were entirely clear-eyed about this.”
Battle may reshape world events, but it’s a brutal, brainless reshaping, rife with idiocy and imbalance (this becomes bitterly visible in the account given here of the “gambler’s luck” addiction of Hitler’s Wehrmacht even when the phenomenon of battle itself was clearly working against them), and Nolan’s impatience with its strange ability to compel admiration despite being in no way admirable occasionally seeps through the imperial cadences of his prose.
“Stand and admire the passing comet of war called Napoleon,” he jeers, “who steered the surging levée en masse and Revolutionary armies out from France to conquer all of Europe, revealing that he was so in love with war he could not stop and lost it all again. Twice. Yes, but it was glorious.”
And the crux of the fascination can be traced, he believes, to the cult of the hero that was intensified by the very Enlightenment that so outspokenly scorned the theatre of war. Time and again throughout The Allure of Battle, we see the terrible cost of that connection, with powerfully charismatic military leaders using it to draw whole generations into sacrifice.
“Perversely, it was shared Enlightenment and Romantic idealisation of genius, in this case of military genius, that portended the newly aggressive spirit,” Nolan writes. “About few other areas of human endeavour besides the random walk of war is the word ‘genius’ used so cheaply and commonly.”
Such figures – the “comets of war” like Bonaparte – put the human face on the allure of battle, racking up the body counts in ways faceless bureaucrats could never do. “It is well that war is so terrible,” famously quoted American Confederate general Robert E Lee along the same lines, “otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”
Nolan sets his book’s narrative force firmly against such romantic nonsense. He repeatedly reminds his readers of the “grinding attrition and mass slaughter” that are the inevitable components of all warfare. He keeps before his readers at all times the central fact that those earlier, grander military histories – for which Nolan’s book is a worthy but distinctly modern counterpart – were so often at pains to obscure: that the allure of battle is nightmare.
Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.